REVIEW SUMMARY: A portal fantasy that excellently leverages the author’s penchant for strong characters, evocative description and vivid worldbuilding.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS:: Sophie Hansa inadvertently finds herself transported from modern San Francisco to the parallel world of Stormwrack. The secrets of her own origins in this strange watery world are but a small thread in a tangle of politics and conspiracy.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: Strong characters (especially female characters); interesting and evocative worldbuilding; tasty, complicated politics.
CONS: Portal Fantasy may be passé to some readers; the book could use a map and glossary.
BOTTOM LINE: A bright and clear view to an interesting world with an engaging heroine who is our entry ticket into it.

No good deed goes unpunished. One minute, Sophie is trying to help her birth mother, who, on a weekend where her adoptive parents are away, she’s decided to try to track down and meet. Next minute, a fight at her mother’s doorstep goes weird, and Sophie finds herself treading water in an ocean, but its not the Pacific Ocean outside her San Francisco home. She’s on another world, where the people are hauntingly familiar, even if they speak a foreign language. And they are aware of and dismissive of the more technologically advanced Earth next door. What connection does Sophie have with this world of Stormwrack? Why does it seem that people know who and what Sophie and her family is,here, even if she doesn’t know herself. Can Sophie learn to navigate the dangerous currents of the politics and conspiracy that she has been dropped into? Or even be allowed to stay rather than being bundled back to Earth? A.M. Dellamonica explores Sophie’s story in Child of a Hidden Sea.

The 24 year-old Sophie makes a believable and interesting protagonist. Given that she quickly learns her own foundling origins are on this world, her motivations and desire to learn more about Stormwrack rather than turn tail and forget her experience are completely believable and easy to identify with. Would I, in her place, start maxing out credit cards to obtain cameras and other equipment to document this world next door? Absolutely! Her stubbornness, her intelligence and her effusive appeal are palpable. She thinks like a science geek and asks the questions I would ask in her place. I’d love to sit down and buy Sophie a drink and chat with her about her experiences. Around her, on Stormwrack, the author has created a constellation of interesting and diverse characters, many of them women.

In addition to the strength of characters, the rich political-oriented worldbuilding of Child of a Hidden Sea stands as its strength and focus of interest. A group of island nations means that its easy to have a wide swath of polities of all sorts, with a complicated net of relationships. The characters Sophie meets are all embedded into this web of politics with varying degrees of acceptance and resistance to their roles. Sophie does get chucked into the deep end of these political waters, as does the reader, and learning who does what and why is a puzzle that offers a view into this world’s culture. Gleefully and gladly, the cultures we see here are never cookie-cutter, and the culture shocks and conflicts are always interesting. What works a little less clearly, and perhaps it is something the author will explore in future volumes, is the interface between Stormwrack and Earth. Sophie pokes at this connection, and there is a real taboo on Stormwrack regarding Earth and Earth based matters.

As I was reading Child of a Hidden Sea, I was reminded of Chase the Morning (1990) by Michael Scott Rohan. Rohan’s portal fantasy is unusually like Child of a Hidden Sea in that the world on the other side of the portal is very much ocean-based, with polities and factions squabbling and drawing the protagonist into their midst even as the protagonist seeks to answer his questions and fulfill his own quest. And both novels feature exciting action and adventure that, mixed with the politics and factional struggles, keep readers turning the pages.

With the complicated politics, history and geography of the world of Stormwrack, however, the book sorely could use some aids for the reader. At the beginning of the book, with Sophie confused and having information thrown at her, having the reader share that experience is fine, but as the novel progresses and Sophie finds her sea legs, I found myself wishing for a map or a glossary. The complicated politics and factional interactions, which are tasty, could use a bit of context and grounding as the novel progresses. Regardless, I loved the world that the author has built.

Is Portal Fantasy passé at this point in genre history? The rise of fantasy in recent years has trended toward the mean streets of Urban Fantasy and the fully immersive widescreen Epic Fantasy universe. The intersection of worlds — the portal fantasy — has had far less love and appreciation. I’ve had a soft spot for Portal Fantasy for a long time since it has been a fixture of Fantasy for so long. Perhaps that bias has influenced my appreciation of the book. However, perhaps, too, it is time for authors to seriously sail the seas of this subgenre again, and readers as well. Dellamonica’s world of Stormwrack in Child of a Hidden Sea is a fine port from which to set sail.

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